Trotsky on Freedom of the Press

Lev Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism.


Trotsky’s classic justification of the use of terror included a passionate rebuttal to leftist protests over the shuttering of the free press in Soviet Russia.

“Freedom of the Press”

One point particularly worries Kautsky–the freedom of the Press. Is it permissible to suppress newspapers?

During war all institutions and organs of the State and of public opinion become, directly or indirectly, weapons of warfare. This is particularly true of the Press. No government carrying on a serious war will allow publications to exist on its territory which, openly or indirectly, support the enemy. Still more so in a civil war. The nature of the latter is such that each of the struggling sides has in the rear of its armies considerable circles of the population on the side of the enemy. In war, where both success and failure are repaid by death, hostile agents who penetrate into the rear are subject to execution. This is inhumane, but no one ever considered war a school of humanity–still less civil war. Can it be seriously demanded that, during a civil war with the White Guards of Denikin, the publications of parties supporting Denikin should come out unhindered in Moscow and Petrograd? To propose this in the name of the “freedom” of the Press is just the same as, in the name of open dealing, to demand the publication of military secrets. “A besieged city,” wrote a Communard, Arthur Arnould of Paris, “cannot permit within its midst that hopes for its fall should openly be expressed, that the fighters defending it should be incited to treason, that the movements of its troops should be communicated to the enemy. Such was the position of Paris under the Commune.” Such is the position of the Soviet Republic during the two years of its existence.

Let us, however, listen to what Kautsky has to say in this connection.

“The justification of this system (i.e., repressions in connection with the Press) is reduced to the naive idea that an absolute truth (!) exists, and that only the Communists posses it (!). Similarly,” continues Kautsky, “it reduces itself to another point of view, that all writers are by nature liars (!) and that only Communists are fanatics for truth (!). In reality, liars and fanatics for what they consider truth are to be found in all camps.” And so on, and so on, and so on.

In this way, in Kautsky”s eyes, the revolution, in its most acute phase, when it is a question of the life and death of classes, continues as hitherto to be a literary discussion with the object of establishing … the truth. What profundity! … Our “truth,” of course, is not absolute. But as in its name we are, at the present moment, shedding our blood, we have neither cause nor possibility to carry on a literary discussion as to the relativity of truth with those who “criticize” us with the help of all forms of arms. Similarly, our problem is not to punish liars and to encourage just men amongst journalists of all shades of opinion, but to throttle the class lie of the bourgeoisie and to achieve the class truth of the proletariat, irrespective of the fact that in both camps there are fanatics and liars.

“The Soviet Government,” Kautsky thunders, “has destroyed the sole remedy that might militate against corruption: the freedom of the Press. Control by means of unlimited freedom of the Press alone could have restrained those bandits and adventurers who will inevitably cling like leeches to every unlimited, uncontrolled power.” And so on.

The Press as a trusty weapon of the struggle with corruption! This liberal recipe sounds particularly pitiful when one remembers the two countries with the greatest “freedom” of the Press–North America and France–which, at the same time, are countries of the most highly developed stage of capitalist corruption.

Feeding on the old scandal of the political ante-rooms of the Russian revolution, Kautsky imagines that without Cadet and Menshevik freedom the Soviet apparatus is honeycombed with “bandits” and “adventurers.” Such was the voice of the Mensheviks a year or eighteen months ago. Now even they will not dare to repeat this. With the help of Soviet control and party selection, the Soviet Government, in the intense atmosphere of the struggle, has dealt with the bandits and adventurers who appeared on the surface at the moment of the revolution incomparably better than any government whatsoever, at any time whatsoever.

We are fighting. We are fighting a life-and-death struggle. The Press is a weapon not of an abstract society, but of two irreconcilable, armed and contending sides. We are destroying the Press of the counter-revolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions, its stores, its communication, and its intelligence system. Are we depriving ourselves of Cadet and Menshevik criticisms of the corruption of the working class? In return we are victoriously destroying the very foundations of capitalist corruption.

But Kautsky goes further to develop his theme. He complains that we suppress the newspapers of the SRs and the Mensheviks, and even–such things have been known–arrest their leaders. Are we not dealing here with “shades of opinion” in the proletarian or the Socialist movement? The scholastic pedant does not see facts beyond his accustomed words. The Mensheviks and SRs for him are simply tendencies in Socialism, whereas, in the course of the revolution, they have been transformed into an organization which works in active co-operation with the counter-revolution and carries on against us an open war. The army of Kolchak was organized by Socialist Revolutionaries (how that name savours to-day of the charlatan!), and was supported by Mensheviks. Both carried on–and carry on–against us, for a year and a half, a war on the Northern front. The Mensheviks who rule the Caucasus, formerly the allies of Hohenzollern, and to-day the allies of Lloyd George, arrested and shot Bolsheviks hand in hand with German and British officers. The Mensheviks and S.R.s of the Kuban Rada organized the army of Denikin. The Esthonian Mensheviks who participate in their government were directly concerned in the last advance of Yudenich against Petrograd. Such are these “tendencies” in the Socialist movement. Kautsky considers that one can be in a state of open and civil war with the Mensheviks and SRs, who, with the help of the troops they themselves have organized for Yudenich, Kolchak and Denikin, are fighting for their “shade of opinions” in Socialism, and at the same time to allow those innocent “shades of opinion” freedom of the Press in our rear. If the dispute with the SRs and the Mensheviks could be settled by means of persuasion and voting–that is, if there were not behind their backs the Russian and foreign imperialists–there would be no civil war.

Kautsky, of course, is ready to “condemn”–an extra drop of ink–the blockade, and the Entente support of Denikin, and the White Terror. But in his high impartiality he cannot refuse the latter certain extenuating circumstances. The White Terror, you see, does not infringe their own principles, while the Bolsheviks, making use of the Red Terror, betray the principle of “the sacredness of human life which they themselves proclaimed.”

What is the meaning of the principle of the sacredness of human life in practice, and in what does it differ from the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” Kautsky does not explain. When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child? Will not thereby the principle of the “sacredness of human life” be infringed? May one kill the murderer to save oneself? Is an insurrection of oppressed slaves against their masters permissible? Is it permissible to purchase one”s freedom at the cost of the life of one”s jailers? If human life in general is sacred and inviolable, we must deny ourselves not only the use of terror, not only war, but also revolution itself. Kautsky simply does not realize the counter-revolutionary meaning of the “principle” which he attempts to force upon us. Elsewhere we shall see that Kautsky accuses us of concluding the Brest-Litovsk peace: in his opinion we ought to have continued war. But what then becomes of the sacredness of human life? Does life cease to be sacred when it is a question of people talking another language, or does Kautsky consider that mass murders organized on principles of strategy and tactics are not murders at all? Truly it is difficult to put forward in our age a principle more hypocritical and more stupid. As long as human labor power, and, consequently, life itself, remain articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery, the principle of the “sacredness of human life” remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.

We used to fight against the death penalty introduced by Kerensky, because that penalty was inflicted by the courts-martial of the old army on soldiers who refused to continue the imperialist war. We tore this weapon out of the hands of the old courts-martial, destroyed the courts-martial themselves, and demobilized the old army which had brought them forth. Destroying in the Red Army, and generally throughout the country, counter-revolutionary conspirators who strive by means of insurrections, murders, and disorganization, to restore the old regime, we are acting in accordance with the iron laws of a war in which we desire to guarantee our victory.

If it is a question of seeking formal contradictions, then obviously we must do so on the side of the White Terror, which is the weapon of classes which consider themselves “Christian,” patronize idealist philosophy, and are firmly convinced that the individuality (their own) is an end-in-itself. As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life.” We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.

There is another difference between the White Terror and the Red, which Kautsky to-day ignores, but which in the eyes of a Marxist is of decisive significance. The White Terror is the weapon of the historically reactionary class. When we exposed the futility of the repressions of the bourgeois State against the proletariat, we never denied that by arrests and executions the ruling class, under certain conditions, might temporarily retard the development of the social revolution. But we were convinced that they would not be able to bring it to a halt. We relied on the fact that the proletariat is the historically rising class, and that bourgeois society could not develop without increasing the forces of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie to-day is a falling class. It not only no longer plays an essential part in production, but by its imperialist methods of appropriation is destroying the economic structure of the world and human culture generally. Nevertheless, the historical persistence of the bourgeoisie is colossal. It holds to power, and does not wish to abandon it. Thereby it threatens to drag after it into the abyss the whole of society. We are forced to tear it off, to chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon utilized against a class, doomed to destruction, which does not wish to perish. If the White Terror can only retard the historical rise of the proletariat, the Red Terror hastens the destruction of the bourgeoisie. This hastening–a pure question of acceleration–is at certain periods of decisive importance. Without the Red Terror, the Russian bourgeoisie, together with the world bourgeoisie, would throttle us long before the coming of the revolution in Europe. One must be blind not to see this, or a swindler to deny it.

The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the Soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror. Kautsky, who, during the last two years, has covered mountains of paper with polemics against Communism and Terrorism, is obliged, at the end of his pamphlet, to recognize the facts, and unexpectedly to admit that the Russian Soviet Government is to-day the most important factor in the world revolution. “However one regards the Bolshevik methods,” he writes, “the fact that a proletarian government in a large country has not only reached power, but has retained it for two years up to the present time, amidst great difficulties, extraordinarily increases the sense of power amongst the proletariat of all countries. For the actual revolution the Bolsheviks have thereby accomplished a great work–grosses geleistet.

This announcement stuns us as a completely unexpected recognition of historical truth from a quarter whence we had long since ceased to await it. The Bolsheviks have accomplished a great historical task by existing for two years against the united capitalist world. But the Bolsheviks held out not only by ideas, but by the sword. Kautsky”s admission is an involuntary sanctioning of the methods of the Red Terror, and at the same time the most effective condemnation of his own critical concoction.

Source: Lev Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: a reply to Karl Kautsky (New York : Workers Party of America, 1922), pp. 176-233.

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